I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the metaphor of upward mobility and the ways in which social mobility often involves actual mobility—moving around to move up. I never really realized the emphasis on mobility in social mobility until it happened to me. That is, until my pursuit of graduate education coupled with financial need took me away from my home, family, and friend networks in Maryland to a fully funded PhD. program in the Midwest. I’ve written here before about the weirdness of living in a new geographical location than the one you’ve grown up in. But this time around I’m also interested in what gets gained and lost when one moves around as part of moving up.
I’m worried that increasingly I encounter popular rhetoric that assumes everyone is upwardly mobile or aspiring to be—that mobility is inherently good. Or, as President Bartlett puts it: “That’s the problem with the American dream. It makes everyone concerned for the day they’re gonna be rich.” These kinds of assumptions (that upward mobility is absolutely good, and thus that everyone must be looking for it) erase the challenges that mobility brings. These assumptions also erase the experiences of people who are content in their social standing or who are working just to keep that social standing secure, let alone to move out of it.
Social mobility is hard, especially when it involves actually moving. When you move, you lose networks of friends and family—networks of emotional, intellectual, and oftentimes financial support. And that’s fine. Sometimes things should be difficult. But we should talk more about that difficulty. Instead of just telling people encouraging things like education is the key to success or you can be whatever you want to be, it might help to temper that encouragement with honesty about how difficult it is to join a class of people who are not like the class of people you know and love best. This is not to discourage moving up or moving around, but to open up dialogue about challenges. Honest dialogue about challenges would also help for kinship purposes; for people to be able to find peers and mentors who support them and who they could help support in return.
Mobility is hard. You don’t always get to make ends meet, and that often feels like your own individual failure rather than the failure of a system that tells people to do and be whatever they want but really only rewards those who stick to the status quo and don’t shake things up too much. You miss things. People get married, people get born, people get sick, people die. You don’t get to be there for the celebrations and the successes, and you don’t get to be there for the tragedies and challenges. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. You build new networks, make new friends and family. And your relationships to your old networks shift and change in fun and exciting ways, not just in scary ways. We need people who’ve moved up and moved around. If only so that when they get where they’re going they can say, this isn’t actually better than where I was before, it’s just different, different in good and bad ways from where I was before.
A little background music for your enjoyment whilst you peruse this post.